By Claire Walla
A Conversation with Doug Mercer the proponent of fostering healthier eating habits on the East End who founded the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton in 2005. The organization will hold its first benefit later this month.
The Wellness Challenge promotes eating an all vegan diet for six weeks, eliminating meat and dairy. What’s the biggest problem with animal products?
It’s the cholesterol and the fat. Meat just doesn’t have the phytonutrients you need.
We don’t have anything around here that says, “We’re trying to crank-out vegans.” We focus on empowering people so they can maximize their wellness potential, so incremental improvements are also extremely important. With meat, it’s a function of the volume you’re consuming. Dr. [Antinia Fermin, a Wellness Foundation consultant and author of the book “Food Is Elementary”] says if you’re consuming 90 percent natural plant food you’re in reasonable shape.
Are you yourself strictly vegan?
No, I have fish a couple times a week and egg whites maybe once a week.
How many people have participated in the program thus far?
We’re up to about 500 people since [the Wellness Challenge began in earnest] in 2009. The average total cholesterol drop is about 35 points and weight loss is about nine pounds. But, even more importantly, there are other factors related to how you feel and how much energy you have, like [reduced] joint pain, headaches and upper respiratory congestion.
Do you know how many people actually stick with the program?
We don’t have any hard numbers on that, but that’s what we’re working on getting going forward.
What was your reason for making lifestyle changes yourself?
It was to avoid the strokes that caused my Dad’s early death. He was 62 when he had his first stroke. He basically turned into a vegetable.
What was your diet like at that point?
It was a standard American diet. Good, but far too much dairy and far too much meat. One of the things I noticed immediately after cutting out the dairy [in 1999] was it eliminated upper respiratory congestion. Chronic bronchitis had been a problem for me throughout my life.
Why did you decide to create the Wellness Foundation and introduce these lifestyle changes to others?
In 2005, the kids at the middle school in East Hampton had been boycotting the unhealthy food in their cafeteria. I thought, here’s how I can do something for my immediate community.
The Wellness Foundation focuses on a plant-based diet, exercise and the reduction of stress. Why this specific lifestyle?
I guess I knew that scientifically it would work — it was working for me. My major question was what its reception would be like here. In 2005, that was very much at the beginning of the current trend [in healthier eating]. In all honesty, we were just lucky. At this point, we actually have doctors participating and even recommending their patients take the Challenge.
The Wellness Foundation will be holding its first Benefit on June 30. Do you have a specific goal for the money you hope to raise?
To reach more people with the programs we already have in place. The first six years it was all my plan; I funded all the operations at that point. A year ago we started a community-based fundraising initiative and this is the first year we’ve had a benefit.
I imagine it’s pretty difficult for people to make some of the lifestyle changes the Wellness Challenge promotes.
Yeah, but I think it used to be more awkward. I used to feel more self-conscious about it, particularly around the guys. But, the options are better now. Our Wellness Challenge ‘W’ is on the menu in 22 local restaurants. And you can always eat from the side dishes, ask not to have white bread, order a salad with oil and vinegar on the side…
We’re really addressing the causes of degenerative diseases through lifestyle. This is a lifestyle change that really has to come from your gut. You have to do it yourself, which is really the American Way.
The first annual Wellness Foundation Summer Benefit will be June 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Mercer’s residence at 65 Dunemere Lane, overlooking Hook Pond in East Hampton Village. Tickets are $150 each and can be ordered at www.wfeh.org or by calling 329-2590. RSVP by June 16.